LINGUIST List 21.3430

Thu Aug 26 2010

Review: Pragmatics; Sociolinguistics: Norrick & Chiaro (2009)

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        1.    Ksenia Shilikhina, Humor in Interaction

Message 1: Humor in Interaction
Date: 26-Aug-2010
From: Ksenia Shilikhina <>
Subject: Humor in Interaction
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EDITORS: Norrick, Neal R.; Chiaro, Delia TITLE: Humor in Interaction SERIES: Pragmatics & Beyond New Series 182 PUBLISHER: John Benjamins YEAR: 2009

Ksenia Shilikhina, Department of Theoretical and Applied Linguistics, Voronezh State University

This 240-page collection, part of Pragmatics & Beyond New Series (P&BNS) published by John Benjamins, addresses issues of verbal humor in real-life spontaneous conversations. Humor is a fundamental ingredient of our social behavior and traditions of humor research exist in modern psychology, anthropology, literary criticism, sociology, medicine and even computer science (e.g., Raskin 2008). ''Humor in Interaction'' presents new findings in verbal humor research from conversational and interactional perspective.

As the title suggests, interactional aspects of humor are central here. The contributors avoid the tradition of describing humor from the researcher's intuitive assumptions of what is funny and what is not. Instead, they concentrate on the ways humor functions in conversation and base their research on recorded dialogues and other data (e.g. narratives) drawn from talks in different settings. The idea underlying all contributions is that humor is a specific multifunctional mode of discourse.

The volume contains ten chapters in four parts. The papers in Part I discuss verbal humor in spontaneous conversation among family and friends. Part II focuses on gender issues of verbal humor in a workplace. Part III addresses the issue of failed humor. Finally, Part IV is devoted to the role of humor in various bilingual settings. The authors represent various theoretical perspectives and base their analyses on data from cultures including French, German, the Māori and Pākehā cultures of New Zealand.


In their Introduction, Neal R. Norrick and Delia Chiaro present an overview of the interactional approach to humor. They argue that, because humor constitutes an important part of our everyday interaction, it is promising to apply methods of conversational analysis to humorous communication. They explain the reasons for organizing contributions and give a brief overview of the chapters. I turn now to a short description of each contribution.

Part I. The first part consists of four papers united by the kind of data used for humor research, namely, spontaneous conversations among friends and family members. This kind of private communication provides researches with naturally occurring instances of verbal humor.

Chapter 1. Susan Ervin-Tripp and Martin Lampert address the issue of revealing personal information through humor in ''The occasioning of self-disclosure humor''. The research was based on 102 recorded and transcribed dialogues in groups of adults and children aged from 7 to 10. The general idea is that humor is a good mode of talking about one's personal experience, especially if this experience was not particularly happy. Ervin-Tripp and Lampert demonstrate how humorous exchanges perform the important function of self-disclosure in a variety of interactional contexts. Analysis shows how self-directed humor helps either to maintain existing topic or introduce a new one in a situation of self-disclosure. Self-directed humorous remarks also show the speaker's reaction to an incidental environmental event.

The authors also address gender differences, where results suggest that using humor for self-disclosure in American culture tends to be gender-specific: self-directed humorous talk in groups of female peers tends to be used in complex narrations and reveals common concerns or troubles while humorous self-disclosure in male groups serves an entertaining function.

In Chapter 2, ''Direct address as a resource for humor'', N. Norrick and C. Bubel explore the functions and the outcomes of humorous direct address in everyday discourse. Multiple forms of direct address have several discursive functions; among them identification and expressive function are most important. As for humorous forms of address, they reveal information about social positions and interpersonal relations between the participants of communication, e.g., forms of endearment may function as markers of irony, mock sympathy or deprecation.

Another case of creating humorous effect is using inappropriate terms of address. Incongruity is contextually significant: it categorizes discursive behavior of the interlocutor as inappropriate. The examples of dialogues clearly illustrate that the choice of terms of address (e.g. psychotherapist Lisa or Mister Prescriptive) signals the speakers' ironic evaluation of the position taken up by the addressee.

Norrick and Bubel conclude that humorous forms of address are dynamic and context-dependent, and sometimes interpretation of humorous address involves substantial cultural knowledge.

In Chapter 3, ''An Interactional Approach to Irony Development'', Helga Kothoff addresses the problem of verbal irony -- a popular object of research. She notes that the majority of existing theories of verbal irony are based on single utterances constructed by linguists. Moving beyond this tradition, Kothoff analyzes large chunks of dialogues and shows that irony is not an isolated act, and can happen in a sequence of utterances in a dialogue. Kothoff uses dialogues of 9-year-old children and shows how their ironic utterances reproduce voices of others, e.g. teachers, and exercise their knowledge about norms and behavioral standards.

Kothoff's analysis of irony is based on the assumption that the meaning of ironic utterances is double-layered and these layers somehow oppose each other. This opposition is the source of difficulties in production and understanding of irony in discourse. The idea of double-layered semantics of ironic utterances is combined with another theoretical platform -- Mikhail Bakhtin's theory of multiple voicing in discourse. Irony is then viewed as a complex mode of discourse because it necessarily involves performance. Children's use of irony shows that animation of different voices (especially voices of authority) is essential for understanding of irony and negotiation of behavioral standards.

In ''Multimodal and Intertextual Humor while Watching TV'', Chapter 4, Cornelia Gerhardt discusses interactional behavior of British football fans watching matches. She uses a corpus of naturally occurring dialogues videotaped in home settings. This study is interesting because it investigates the interaction between the media text and verbal exchanges of people watching football.

Gerhardt shows that fans' laughter can be elicited either by positive actions of their team or by humorous remarks made by sportscasters. She starts her analysis with humor produced in sports casting and then discusses humor produced by the viewers. Gerhardt uses the notion of multimodality to describe the connection between what is shown on screen and the verbal reaction of the viewers. As the author argues, the important feature of these dialogues is that humor created by television viewers is an intertextual response to the sports casting. In general the situation of watching football creates an atmosphere of closeness and enjoyment. In this kind of setting verbal humor works as a signal of sociability and helps to negotiate the media text.

Part II. Two chapters included in the second part discuss humor in the workplace. Both use the data from the Wellington Language in the Workplace Project. Another common feature of the papers is their clear sociolinguistic orientation. The main question is how humor can be used to construct social identity or activate certain aspects of this identity in a particular interaction.

Organizational discourse is a specific context with its own rules and norms. Research of language use in a workplace shows that these rules and norms are often gender-specific. Humor in a workplace also seems to be a gender-specific activity used for constructing identities in organizational discourse.

In Chapter 5, ''Using humor to do masculinity at work'', Stephanie Schnurr and Janet Holmes use recordings made in several New Zealand professional organizations to show that humor in the workplace is a versatile discursive strategy. They frame their study around the concept of community of practice and social identity theory, analyzing manifestations of masculinity in workplace interactions and describing instances of gendered humor. The researchers maintain that, because workplaces are male-dominated, masculine discursive strategies are considered to be a standard mode of communication. Directness and assertiveness being the main features of these strategies are expressed by various linguistic means. For those interested in workplace humor the chapter provides a rich bibliography on gender issues and humorous communication at work.

Chapter 6 is ''Boundary-marking humor'' by B.Vine, S. Kell, M. Marra and J. Holmes. The paper discusses the use of humor in dialogues between women belonging to different New Zealand ethnic groups -- the Māori and the Pākehā. The women work at the same government department, but the two groups are in different social positions -- the Māori are traditionally considered to be a minority while the Pākehā people are the dominant group. The authors start from the premise that humor is not only a tool for creating and maintaining in-group boundaries and norms, but also a linguistic strategy used by minorities to construct positive identity and subvert the influence of dominant groups. The exaggerated stereotypes of the dominant groups created by members of minority groups become a source of entertainment. Another important point pursued by Vine et al. is that our social identity is dynamic and various facets of it come to the fore in different situations.

The analysis of the dialogues starts with examples of institutional boundary-marking. Both ethnic groups use humor to refer to the more dominant out-group of the wider public service. The second portion of dialogues illustrates how humor is used for gender boundary-marking. Finally, the authors present examples of ethnic boundary marking humor. Here the Māori speaker uses a negative self-stereotype in a humorous way and the utterance creates the feeling of in-group closeness. The analysis shows that humorous communication in a workplace can be seen as a way of social demarcation. It also enables activation of different aspects of social identities in various discursive settings.

Part III. Because humor is a semantically and pragmatically laden mode of speaking, there is always a chance of miscommunication. The papers in the third part discuss cases of failed humor. Both papers pay attention to the fact that failed humor has been a largely neglected area of humor research in linguistics. In fact, these instances of miscommunication can be a valuable source of information about humorous discourse.

In Chapter 7, ''Impolite responses to failed humor'', Nancy Bell deals specifically with situations in which listeners consider humor inappropriate and respond to humorous utterances aggressively. The pragmatic effect of the recipient's aggression is either belittling the speaker, social exclusion or humiliation. Verbal aggression is closely related to impoliteness, the key concept of this study. It is described as an interactional value-laden phenomenon. Bell reviews pragmatic theories of impoliteness and face, arguing that the role of humor in rapport management is oversimplified by researchers who treat humor as an aggressive face-threatening mode of discourse and those who consider humor a tool for cooperative communication.

The interactional data was collected in an experiment where the recipients were prompted to react to a joke which was easy to recognize as such and at the same time likely to fail. All reactions were rated as polite or impolite. Further discussion focused only on impolite responses. These can be either face-threatening (i.e. positive) or face-saving (i.e. negative). Results show that the majority of responses fall into the category of offensive, positive impoliteness strategies. These include snubbing, showing unconcern or being unsympathetic. Some recipients used negative impoliteness strategies to signal that a joke had failed. Pragmatically negative strategies challenge the speaker or invading the other's space.

Bell offers four explanations for why people show aggressive reactions to failed humor. This may happen because people view jokes as a disruptive mode of discourse, or as something which does not meet their behavioral expectations. The third reason is close relationships between the joke-tellers and recipients -- the majority of impolite responses came from friends and family members. Finally, identity concerns/face claims are the fourth reason to show that the joke was not amusing.

Chapter 8 Béatrice Priego-Valverde addresses the problem of failed humor in ''Failed humor in conversation: A double voicing analysis''. Using Bakhtin's notion of double voicing, she explains several important features of verbal humor, e.g. the contrast between seriousness and playfulness, or the distance between speaker and hearer, or the speaker's ambiguous intention. Double voicing perspective is also a useful tool for explaining why humor sometimes fails.

Humor fails when interlocutors use different modes of speech (sincere and serious vs. playful and humorous mode). Preigo-Valverde distinguishes two kinds of humor failures: when the joke is not perceived or when it is perceived as such but rejected by the listener. Priego-Valverde analyzes conversations among friends and shows how humor can go unnoticed or, when the joke is face-threatening and aggressive, it can be openly rejected.

The theoretical framework includes the notions of interactive space (the image of the interaction co-constructed by participants) and the idea of positions. Of particular interest are the subjective position and enunciative position. The former comprises the images of the interlocutors constructed by the speaker, while the latter refers to the mode of presentation.

Part IV. The final part concentrates on humor in bilingual interactions. Language acquisition is yet another area where humor is important.

Chapter 9, ''Humor and Interlanguage in a bilingual elementary school setting'' by Kristin Kersten, addresses the question of how humor is used in the process of language acquisition. She reviews previous findings in the area of child humor in SLA. Children experience difficulties at different levels of language (e.g. lack of vocabulary or insufficient grammatical competence) and some problems also arise on a cognitive level. Then Kersten views these problems through the prism of Grice's (1975) model of cooperative communication and claims that humor in SLA is the result of incongruity in communication, in other words, violation of expectations and the actual linguistic performance of a child.

The second issue addressed is the process of child humor development and the functions humor serves in child communication. A widespread view is that humor development is grounded in children's early play experience. Children learn to understand and to produce humor at an early age and humorous discourse plays an important role in the process of the child's socialization.

Kersten uses audio- and video-taped narratives elicited from 6-7-year-old children who study English at a partial immersion elementary school in northern Germany. Humor is not a teaching priority in a second language classroom, yet children use humor creatively to manage social interaction. Kersten identifies situations in which children often use humor: Embarrassment, Pictorial Incongruity, Clowning and Involuntary Incongruity are most frequent. Kersten concludes that at the age of 6 and 7 children use humor non-aggressively.

Humor in interaction of bilingual couples is yet another area of research chosen by Delia Chiaro in Chapter 10, ''Cultural divide or unifying factor? Humorous talk in the interaction of bilingual, cross-cultural couples''. Humor is viewed as a form of collaboration that enhances relationships and contributes to the quality of communication between spouses.

Chiaro uses quantitative data from self-reporting questionnaires and information drawn from semi-structured interviews for qualitative analysis. The questionnaires asked about social and demographic background as well as linguistic information and included questions regarding the use of humor in family interaction.

The first question that arises is the choice of language in different situations (e.g. communication with partner's relatives, worship, talking about money, etc.). Questionnaire data shows that using their partner's language creates bonds that usually make spouses happy and the evolution of the relationship gradually leads to frequent code-switching in humorous discourse.

Though research findings claim that sense of humor is in many ways a universal trait and is not culture-dependent, interviews showed that people tend to connect the ability to perceive humor with language impediments and cultural diversity of the partners.


Most theoretical models of verbal humor are text-oriented. In contrast, the present interactional approach is speaker- and listener-oriented. Every paper in this volume demonstrates practical ways of collecting and interpreting interactional data. An interactional approach allows an interdisciplinary description of how humor functions in discourse. This empirical groundedness shows that humor is an important linguistic tool in our everyday interaction. It serves multiple functions, such as construction of complex social identities or in-group affiliation. People draw on humor to construct their identities or to create intertextual connections. An interactional approach to humor emphasizes that any use of humor can be understood only in a particular context.


Grice Herbert P. 1975. Logic and conversation. In Syntax and Semantics. Vol. 3: Speech Acts, Peter Cole & Jerry L. Morgan (Eds), 41-58. New York: Academic Press.

Raskin Viktor (Ed). 2008. The Primer of Humor Research. Mouton de Gruyter.


Ksenia Shilikhina is an Associate Professor of Linguistics at Voronezh State University, Russia. Her current projects include research of verbal humor and irony. Another area of interest is corpus linguistics.

Page Updated: 26-Aug-2010